My colleagues are often quick to remind me that the weather has cooled down a bit in the last few weeks with the start of the rains. At times I still find the heat stifling, my body covered in sweat, my mind trying to concentrate despite the urge to sleep. In addition this week I have suffered from the dreaded diarrhoea to add to my discomfort. I sometimes start to feel a little sorry for myself working long days in difficult conditions, moaning about the food. It’s important to remind myself that my trivial hardships are really insignificant when compared to some of our patients and their families.
Gai* arrived at our therapeutic feeding centre on the day of his first birthday. He was suffering from severe malnutrition, diarrhoea and dehydration. He looks gaunt, his skin hangs loose around his body, his eyes sunken in his head. I quickly hear that he has arrived with his family after a journey from Khartoum the capital of Sudan, the northern neighbour of South Sudan. The following day after Gai’s condition stabilises a little I try to find out more about his journey here.
His mother Catharina* tells me she was born in Mayom county west of Bentiu about 22 years ago (many people seem to be unsure about their exact age here). When she was young her father died and she travelled with her mother and siblings to Khartoum. There her mother got work as a domestic cleaner for a wealthy family. Catharina never had the opportunity to go to school and instead she also began work as a domestic servant whilst still a child. She got married when she was fifteen and had her first child the following year. She now has four children, unfortunately another child passed away in 2009. Gai is the youngest but there is another on the way. Catharina is currently pregnant and will have a new child to care for in a short few months. Her husband is also originally from the same area as her and while they lived in Khartoum he worked in health care and provided for the family. Catharina tells me he also has a second wife who has three children.
Catharina last saw her husband seven months ago when he left Khartoum to join the military in South Sudan. As far as she knows he is currently in a military training camp. She has not received any support from him in the last seven months. I ask Catharina what life has been like in Khartoum since and whilst she doesn’t say she suffered any mistreatment she does say that she felt it was made clear that southerners were not welcome to stay.
Before she left Catharina saved up 700 Sudanese pounds (a little over €200). She travelled with her children on the bus to the border. The cost of the bus used up most of the money and the remainder of was spent on food. When she arrived in South Sudan she sold whatever clothes and objects the family had and raised 160 South Sudanese pounds (about €40). She managed to get transport on a barge organised by the International Organisation for Migration which was meant to come all the way to Bentiu. Unfortunately due to low water levels the barge could not travel all the way and she had to transfer to a smaller boat and then by road the final section. When she arrived she had nothing left. In all the journey took the family 13 days.
I ask her why she decided to bring her child here to the MSF clinic just after arriving. She explains that she knew about the clinic from relatives and even last year had sent one of her other children all the way from Khartoum to be treated here. One of our nurses Simon who is translating her story for me explains ‘MSF has been always working in South Sudan for almost thirty years during many of our difficulties, this is why the people trust MSF’
Hopefully Gai will recover over the coming days. The children’s grandmother has already come to collect the older children. The family’s journey is not quite over yet. Catharina plans to travel onwards to Mayom her homeland. She knows there may be no food but plans to stay with relatives. She doesn’t know if her husband will send any money ‘it is really serious I have no food, I have no home. My main target is only food because I have nothing else’.
*names changed to preserve anonymity